Could focus group interviews be the missing link in critical research?

Lisa Gibson, University of Nottingham
In recent years, there has been an increasing shift in international relations scholarship toward more critical approaches like constructivism, feminism and poststructuralism. With this critical shift has come an acceptance and move toward more interpretivist methodologies. These shifts are characterized by a greater recognition of the role of discourse in understanding how meaning is negotiated between actors and even a shift to studying the relational side of international relations. Discourse can be explored in written documents and media articles, but also in social discourse like conversation and dialogues. These shifting perspectives are influenced by an increased understanding of the important role that agency and even emotions play in international relations. At least in part, these shifts are influenced by a recognition of the role that people play in causing conflict and facilitating peace between countries. Despite the awareness of the human side of conflict and the need to better understand people’s perspectives, what has surprisingly been lacking in these shifts is the use of focus group interviews in the research process. 
This is despite the fact that social science researchers have long recognized that focus groups are the most beneficial method to understand how actors construct meaning together around a given phenomenon (Barbour and Kitzinger, 1999)
Interpretivists see meaning as being constructed socially and experientially. Similarly, critical theorists tend to prefer dialogic research methods that foster conversation and reflection, where the researcher and participants are able to reflexively explore the nature of things. It is through a dialogic process that truth can be determined by consensus (Habermas, 1984). Theorists like Habermas see dialogue as essential to understanding and emancipation (Linklater, 2001). In addition, as critical researchers seek to understand the voices of more marginalised people groups it is important to recognize that many of these marginalised cultures are collectivist cultures. People from collectivist cultures tend to see themselves as interdependent with each other and prioritize group goals over individual ones. People from these cultures, already use more collective processes in their decision making. As a result, collective processes of negotiating meaning are a very natural social process for them. 
Therefore, focus group interviews, as an inherently collective process, can be particularly useful in understanding the group members perspectives when compared with other research approaches. Further, focus groups are also specifically helpful for critical researchers who are cognizant of power dynamics. ‘Compared with most traditional methods, including the one-to-one interview, focus groups inevitably reduce the researcher’s power and control’(Wilkinson, 1999). 
If dialogue is one of the best ways to understand how participants construct meaning together as a group, then focus groups are the best method to use in the research process. If this is true, then it begs the question, why aren’t IR scholars using focus group interviews more frequently in their research. Some benefits of focus group interviews is that they tend to be less expensive and more expedient than other qualitative approaches like ethnography and individual interviews. However, when research involves actors in foreign countries perhaps it is seen as cost prohibitive to travel to a foreign land to do a single focus group with 6-12 participants. Or perhaps with people’s busy lives, it becomes problematic to get a group of people together at the same place and time to conduct the focus group interview. These are all realistic issues. In addition, when doing research in the area of peace and conflict studies, there is always a need to consider issues like security and safety of a researcher and prospective participants when planning to travel into a conflict zone. Therefore, researchers have begun to explore more innovative approaches to research to reach more hard to reach populations. One such method, which has been used in health and culture studies, is the use of Facebook focus group interviews. This method is particularly beneficial, because it provides a forum to not only recruit participants, but hold online Facebook interviews. Rather than searching to find people to interview, you are doing your research in a place that people already are. Doing these interviews online are particularly useful for reaching hard to reach participants, because people are already spending a lot of time interacting online. Facebook focus group interviews can take place in an asynchronous format where participants don’t have to be online at the same time and in a bilingual format by using the Facebook translate features. Facebook provides a very natural and rich forum to explore the process of social discourse in a semi structured way, rather than more passive processes of data collection from existing Facebook groups or posts. It is only through the intersubjective process that the process of meaning construction can be appropriately observed. In addition, when people participate in these focus group interviews the process mirrors similar linguistic characteristics that happen in face-to-face dialogue such as the use of emojis, in lieu of body language. 
To sum up, as the field of international relations scholarship evolves with an increasing commitment to engage a multitude of approaches and gain perspectives of diverse actors, the research methods should evolve as well. Focus group interviews have a long history in social science research. Its recent re-emergence provides an exciting opportunity for researchers to use this rich format to explore critical perspectives on identity construction through a more natural dialogic format. 
Lisa Gibson has a JD in law and is pursuing a PhD in International Relations at University of Nottingham. Her research falls in the area of critical peace and conflict studies. She is currently using focus group interviews to explore how Libyans participation in friendship groups with Americans impact their views of Americans and American foreign policy. 
Barbour, R. and Kitzinger, J. 1999. Developing Focus Group Research. London: Sage.
Habermas, J. 1984. Theory of Communicative Action. Volume One: Reason and the Rationalization of Society. Translated by Thomas A. McCarthy. Boston, Mass: Beacon Press.
Linklater, A. 2001. The Changing Contours of Critical International Relations Theory. In: Jones, W. Critical Theory and World Politics. Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Riener Publishers, Inc. 
Wilkinson, S. 1999. How useful are focus groups to feminist research. In: Barbour, R. and Kitzinger, J. eds. Developing Focus Group Research. London: Sage.

Tags: focus groups, critical research, interpretivism

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